It's 5:59 a.m. on a Saturday morning in may. The sun is rising over the Shawangunk Ridge off in the distance beyond farmland shining in golden greens underneath a beautiful blue sky. I stand shoulder to shoulder with other runners, I wonder if they have the same apprehension, the same feeling of unknown that sits in the pit of my stomach.
Last year I stood on the same starting line with the a different sense of unknown. I had never run more than 31 miles (once), and had no idea what the course was like. Last year I set a blistering pace chasing local legend Ben Nephew and finished second in 7 hours and 3 minutes. Last year I felt healthy, I felt ready.
I look down at my knees, bandages cover them pulling my kneecaps inward to help a patella tracking problem I have developed. I rub my right knee, its still a bit tender. A result from a stress fracture in my kneecap from a fall I took a few months prior. I move up to my right hamstring, wrapped in a compression bandage. I strained it just a few weeks ago but it doesn't seem to be fully healed. I wiggle my toes, I can feel the tape wrapping my left foot holding my pinky toe firmly against the side of my foot, a result of a fractured toe from a late night bathroom break turned accidental run in with a door. I feel broken.
Just two weeks prior I had set out to run the B.A.A 5k and had to stop running after only a mile and a half due to severe pain in my hamstring and knees. Two days after that I lined up to run the Boston Marathon and forced myself through humbling pain to finish with a personal worst for a road marathon of 3 hours 51 minutes, a whole 37 minutes slower than my previous personal worst. That was all the running that I had done leading up to this moment for the past 2 months.
So what was I doing standing on the starting line of a 50-mile race? To be honest, that question never crossed my mind and I suppose if that seems like a logic question to ask then you probably don't understand why I stood there.
So this Is my race report of Rock The Ridge 50 Miler 2014.
Photo Via Michael Neil O'Donnell
With a countdown were off. Within a quarter mile I find myself alone already. Ben Nephew is back and already I can barely see him he's so far ahead. I look back and I'm still way in front of the pack. I laugh to myself, knowing that if last year I was able to keep up with Ben until roughly the 20 mile marker and I'm already this far behind its going to be a long day. We wind through beautiful farmland, the fields are such a brilliant green that I want to stop and take it all in, fully aware that by the time I come back to this point it may be dark.
I hit the first incline around mile two and immediately I feel my right hamstring start to tighten up. I'm carrying trekking poles and I deploy them using my arms to help push me up the never-ending grade. As the first few runners pass me I bite my lip, its hard for me not to be competitive but I know today isn't a race against anybody else. Today is about one thing, myself.
At mile eight my right hamstring is nagging and its caused my hip flexors to start to tighten up. I realize that I'm ahead of schedule coming into the first aid station at mile nine. I've told my crew to expect me between 2-3 hours (knowing I needed to take the day easy) but It looks like I'm going to come in in about 1.5 hours. I'am carrying a 2 way radio in my pack and I take it out while running to call ahead to see if they are there and to tell them to get some Biofreeze ready to help loosen up my legs. I radio out to them but no reply.
"Papa Bear this is Santa Claus. My sled is crashing and I need some Biofreeze stat." I'm running at a brisk pace chatting into my radio, wondering if anybody else is monitoring channel 1 and if they are why they won't respond to me! A runner comes up behind me and startles me, for a moment i'm embarrassed that he has heard me hacking about god knows what into a radio. He introduces himself and we run together for a short period of time but I never got his name. But he told me that this was his first 50-mile race and his goal was to finish under 10 hours (if you're that guy, email me!).
As I run through the aid station at Spring Farm I realize I have beaten my crew there, I tell an aid station worker to tell my family that I've already come through and I continue off down the trail without my much-wanted Biofreeze.
Photo via Mountain Peak Fitness
Mohonk preserve is a beautiful place. I find that at my more relaxed pace this year I am able to take in the views. The gorgeous views of Mohonk Lake from Skytop, and Overcliff Loop looking out over the Hudson Valley distract me from the aches running through my legs. Every few minutes I try to snap out of the trance I've put myself in enjoying the beauty that surrounds me to check on my physical status. Everything still aches but nothing is critical.
And then there it is, the 20-mile marker. I'm two miles out from Trapps Bridge the first place I'll finally get to see my crew. A few miles down the bend I see a figure standing on the side of the trail, suddenly its waving frantically and running the opposite direction. It's my mom! I catch up with her and we run side by side to the bridge where my father and my good friend Jillian are waiting. They refresh my bottles with fresh ones, stuff some more energy gels into my vest and I'm off.
As I ran out of the Lake Minnewaska 26-mile aid station I start to feel the aches in my knees and hamstring become more than aches. As an endurance athlete you learn to know your body and you begin to learn that there are truly two types of discomfort and pain. Theres the type of discomfort and pain that's just your body saying "why are you doing this to me?" and then there's the type of discomfort and pain where your body is saying "you're breaking me, I'm falling apart. Stop now." I was starting to have tinges of the second kind. I try to push through it, testing my limits but as I pass the 30-mile marker I knew that if I kept running I was going to break.
By no means did this mean I was done. As Martin Luther King Jr once said "If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." Well, flying and running were off the table but walking and crawling were certainly still an option.
I dug my trekking poles in and started power hiking. A few moments after I started power hiking I got passed by another runner and I realized how hard this was going to be for me to mentally not take chase and instead just continue at my own pace. My heart was screaming "compete." My body was screaming "you're breaking me," and my mind was struggling to choose a side.
I re-entered the Lake Minnewaska aid station at mile 35, struggling mentally. I had yet to fully come to grips with the fact that I needed to listen to my body not my heart and I immediately asked my crew if one of them would walk with me to the next aid station about five miles away. Jillian immediately said yes, while my parents restocked my vest and we set off walking down the trail. The trail immediately took a dive loosing about 700 feet over the next few miles. We run some of the downhills and took a few moments to take in the beautiful views of Awosting Falls. This part of the course is fun as we pass a lot of runners going the opposite direction and are passed by a few making sure to greet and wish good luck to everyone. Having a good friend by my side helps the internal battle I am facing settle down and as we come into the aid station at mile 40. I joked with my crew that it was simply a 10-mile hike left.
More and more power hiking surrounded by beautiful views. Oh and with about two miles to go I see the guy I ran with in the beginning and yell out to him that he would make it under 10 hours. I hope he ended up being proud of achieving his goal.
As I power hiked my way towards the testimonial gatehouse, where a little over 9 hours and 50 miles ago I started my day I am met by my crew clapping and cheering me on. I take my trekking poles in my hand and run the final 50 feet across the finish.
So lets go back to the beginning. Nine hours and 13 minutes ago. So what was I doing standing on the starting line of a 50-mile race? I was standing there because quite simply It was possible. It was possible that somehow my body would cooperate and let me travel 50 miles. It was possible that I would find the mental strength to push through and persevere and not give it. It was possible that I would be able to achieve my goal of finishing a second year. Quite simply, It was possible.
A big thank you to my Mom, Dad, and Jillian for crewing for me. And to all the race organizers and volunteers, thank you. I can't wait to Rock The Ridge in 2015!